The Drive-By Truckers' rocky road turns brighter

Brian Baker, February 2008

To say that the Drive-By Truckers had a tumultuous 2007 would be akin to observing that Donald Trump has a few semolians. Still, last year's departure of Jason Isbell from the Truckers' ranks had the air of inevitability around it; he had been working piecemeal on his own album for more than two years when he announced his exit from the band to concentrate on his solo career.

For the Truckers, who just released "Brighter Than Creation's Dark," Isbell's absence represented the loss of a guitarist, vocalist and valued songwriter.

But for bassist Shonna Tucker, Isbell's departure was both professionally and personally draining; it was the end of the pair's nearly five-year marriage that facilitated Isbell's split with the Truckers. Understandably not wanting to dredge up personal details, Tucker admits that the experience was draining for her on several different levels.

"To say the least, it was exhausting," she says. "That's a good word for it."

At the same time, the intense emotional upheaval of the end of her relationship with Isbell had an unintended impact on Tucker. She began writing songs.

"I've always kind of written, but since I've been in the band, I've pretty much just been the bass player, and there hasn't been time for that yet," she says. "Once the personal issues were resolved, that's when I was able to get (the songs) out. For a long time, it was almost too much for me to write down because it was happening to me. When it was over was when I could let it out. It took a lot of courage actually to take songs to these guys because I respect them so much as writers. I got the okay from (guitarist and secondary songwriter Mike) Cooley and (lead singer) Patterson (Hood), and I thought, 'Well, here's a start.' It's whole new world for me now. It was a big purging. So, I feel clean and ready to fill back up."

The process became even more alien for Tucker when she took her songs into the studio with the Truckers, as she had composed the songs with rudimentary guitar skills then had to switch back to her bassist role with the band during recording.

"I can't play guitar well at all, and we went in, and I had this bass, and I said, 'Oh, yeah, I gotta play bass and sing,'" says Tucker with a laugh. "We had to figure it out, so it was a fun adventure. It changed my life, actually. I learned a lot about myself and that I could do things that I didn't know I could do or at least I haven't done them in a long time."

As a result, the Drive-By Truckers' new album features a trio of Tucker's contributions, which also benefit from the bassist's first lead vocal appearances. In another first for the band, Cooley came up with seven songs that wound up in the final track listing. Hood filled out "Creation's Dark" with his compositions, giving the album a whopping 19 songs total.

"We've never recorded a Shonna song before, and we've got three, and they fit perfectly with the record," says Hood. "And we ended up recording seven of Cooley's songs this time and they're the best songs he's ever written, and I've got nine on there, and I'm as proud of them as anything I've ever written."

"Some of it is really pretty, and some of it is kind of primal MC5/Stooges influenced, and it all flows right with each other. There's definitely a big soul music and R&B influence in a lot of it, and I think that's always been in our music, but never been as noticed, and I'm glad of that."

Tucker is particularly happy with the soul undercurrent that runs through "Creation's Dark." Having been raised in the shadow of Muscle Shoals and knowing many of the musicians that helped craft that funk/soul sound of the '60s and '70s, Tucker has always felt an affinity for the style and loves its addition to the Truckers' sonic profile.

"That's where my passion lies is soul music," says Tucker. "Still to this day, I'm completely obsessed with all the players around here. I got to grow up around these actual musicians that played on a lot of those soul records that were recorded at Muscle Shoals. It's just my thing. I was happy to get to do it, it was a dream come true, but I assume because of my passion for it that I tend to play more that way if I get a chance to."

While the Truckers' soulful side has been evident before the new CD, it has never seemed so prevalent, and there are two logical reasons for it. First, the songs were conceived in the vicinity of Hood's production for and the Truckers' backing duties on Bettye LaVette's latest heart stopping album, "The Scene of the Crime," an incredible experience for all concerned.

"We got to do our sweet soul record," says Tucker. "So, that put us in a mood."

Perhaps more importantly, the band made the momentous decision to bring in legendary keyboardist Spooner Oldham to lend some soul authenticity to the proceedings. Oldham's input was so critical that the band included him on a good portion of last year's Dirt Underneath acoustic tour. With the return of pedal steel guitarist John Neff to fill Isbell's void, the country/soul/rock vibe could not be denied.

"I've loved having Neff as part of the band, it's an amazing chemistry," says Hood. "The chemistry between himself and Spooner is a thing all by itself. You could build a whole record around just that. We love playing with him. He's phenomenal, and he's such a big part of our new record, too. He's on just about every song."

Tucker, a good friend of Oldham's daughter since age 12, knew from firsthand experience how influential Oldham would be, on the road and in the studio.

"We knew we wanted to get Mr. Spooner in on it, and we knew that that would have a lot to do with shaping which direction it would go in," says Tucker. "His presence alone will change everything. I could go on and on about Spooner. Unless you've been around him and his presence, just as a person, you might not have an idea of what he's like, but it's a strange and beautiful magic that he has all the time, and it's just the way he is. I always feel more relaxed and confident, and he's always very helpful to me and inspires me. And this is the first time we got to work together too. I got to make two records with him, so that's been a whole different aspect to our friendship."

Unlike a good many of the Truckers' efforts over the years, "Brighter Than Creation's Dark" is not a concept album with a central theme and some sort of connecting narrative.

Rather, it's a collection of songs that hangs together as a whole, diverse in sonic construction, but united under the Truckers' unique banner. The fact that Hood has done so many themed albums with the Truckers and that he seems to perpetually be thinking about the band's albums with a conceptualist's mindset may be the very thing that successfully weaves together the disparate songs.

"There seems to be running themes that keep popping up, and it's extremely cohesive, but it's not a concept record," says Hood. "It just sounds like one big piece of work, that all the ingredients fit right with."

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the songs is the fact that most of them were fleshed out during the band's three-week spring tour last year.

"We finally got off the road (in 2006) around Halloween. We'd been touring essentially non-stop since fall of 2001, and it had been like one huge, long tour. We've had the most time off (in 2007) that we've had in the history of this band. We all came home and everybody was worn out and tired; the first month, I don't think anybody did anything. Then, all of a sudden, we all started writing."

"We'd all been through a lot of personal crap, and we had the personnel change happen, and we'd been through a lot, and it all started coming out in song form. I know I wrote maybe 40 songs in a really short period of time, and Cooley, who's never been very prolific, wrote like 10 songs, which is huge. He's been averaging one to two a year and he wrote all these songs that are great - best songs he's ever written. And Shonna wrote some songs."

"We knew we were gonna get together in the spring and do the acoustic tour, and we all decided we wanted Spooner to do it with us and we thought, 'Well, let's work in these new songs over the course of the tour since we're going in the studio in June and start working on the record. Even then, we didn't know if we had any great focus or timeline. We were just gonna pick the best of these songs, go in and start recording and see what happens."

The Truckers' three-week May 2007 tour turned out to be a kamikaze affair as far as the band's new material was concerned. With a handful of songs already completed and heads full of works in progress, the Truckers hit the road with the intent of honing the new tunes into recordable shape before entering the studio the following month.

"We ended up working up the majority of the record at sound checks," says Hood. "We'd work up a new song at sound check and premiere it that night at the show and kind of road test them and iron the kinks out in front of audiences. That went great, and everybody seemed to like the new songs, and we were really liking what we were doing. By the end of the tour, the show was pretty much all new songs, and nobody was complaining about that. I took that as a good sign."

The Truckers were just as fortunate when they took their newly minted tunes into the studio just a couple of weeks after some of them had been tweaked and finalized.

"It was almost like throwing it up in the air, and it all just landed where it needed to land," says Hood with a laugh. "It happened so naturally and unforced, which is always best, I think. It kind of formed and shaped itself."

Amazingly, the Truckers utilized nearly every song they conceived on the road, ultimately deciding that only one of the tunes didn't quite fit the developing pattern of "Brighter Than Creation's Dark."

"The one song, we went as far as recording a couple of times, but we just didn't really come up with the magic take of it, and we decided to leave it off," says Hood. "Ironically, we still play that one live, and it will probably pop up on a future record or a live record or something down the line. But it seems weird to say you have a 19-song record, and you stripped it down to just the essentials, but it really kind of was that way. That 20th song was the one we thought we could live without. We probably would have liked to turn in a shorter record, and I'm sure our label would have loved for us to turn in a shorter record, but it just wasn't destined to be. The whole thing adds up to one piece of work, and there wasn't any leaving stuff off."

Tucker credits Hood with establishing the continuity that makes the diverse songs that populate "Creation's Dark" work so well.

"He has an incredible talent for sequencing, and he has it in his head immediately," says Tucker. "When we first started recording, that's one of the first things he thinks about and he's pretty obsessed with it, and he's really good at it. I think the flow of the record has everything to do with how many songs are on it."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •